Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and line drying liturgical vestments.
For most folks, June is wedding season — a happy time filled with engraved invitations, elaborate centerpieces, even more elaborate gift registries, and many trips to find the perfect pair of strappy sandals. For me, though, June means it’s time to help my husband wash and iron his whitest alb and his reddest stole and tuck them neatly in a garment bag he will keep in the trunk of his car for the next six weeks.
That’s right. June is also ordination season. Graduates are streaming out of seminaries towards their first parishes, excited and eager to do the work of the Lord with their heads in the sky and their boots (or black dress shoes, or Berkenstock sandals, or even Converse All-Stars) on the ground.
I’ll never forget my own husband’s ordination, almost three years ago — the happy day I watched him kneel before the altar and receive blessings from the hands of a dozen other pastors. I’ll never forget hearing him recite the Words of Institution over the Lord’s Supper for the first time, while the church seemed to echo with joy. I’ll never forget kissing him goodbye the morning after and watching him drive off for his first day in his new office, both of us confident that his grueling four-year seminary education had indeed equipped him well for the day-to-day realities of pastoral work.
We had no idea how much he didn’t know.
To say the learning curve for a new pastor is steep is like saying Facebook is popular or Charlie Sheen has issues. It’s completely true — yet it’s true in a completely understated way.
These first three years have been joyful — to be sure — but also painful for me, as I’ve watched him not only learn but also unlearn and learn over again for the sake of church and ministry.
Now, as I get ready to send my husband off to lay hands on the next generation of bright young pastors, I’m more than half tempted to write the ordinands (and, for that matter, all seminary and preseminary students) and beg them to wait, to think, to pray fiercely, and to look extra carefully before they leap.
Pastoral work isn’t always, or even often, what the smiling, happy models in a C. M. Almy catalog would lead us to believe. For every joy-filled baptism or hope-filled wedding, there will be tragedy — a suicide; a messy divorce; a lonely, bitter convalescence; a painful, lingering death. For every radiant Christmas Eve or Easter morning, there will be dozens of meetings, most of them tedious marathons at best, contentious shouting matches at worst. Yet it is the pastor’s job to bring a prayer, the Word, and the love of God into all these situations, no matter how hard it is to do and how much it sometimes hurts.
Like poet-priest George Herbert in the seventeenth century, there will be days when every pastor will say, “I struck the board, and cry’d, No more; / I will abroad.”
So don’t do it if you don’t have to. Don’t be a pastor. Serve God as an accountant, a small-business owner, or a stay-at-home parent. Be a faithful Christian teacher. A counselor. An engineer. A nurse. A carpenter. An astronaut.
And yet, if you must be a pastor — if the divine calling to serve God through full-time church work is so strong that you cannot deny it; if the consecrated life of ordained ministry is the only life you can imagine — at least go into it a little better prepared than we were.
To start, I recommend two books that I’ve recently had the pleasure of finishing. One is fairly practical, the other sublime.
I only wish I had read Lawrence Farris’s Ten Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation aloud with my husband three summers ago (as I have finally been able to do this Spring). Farris’s short and easy-to-read guidebook is full of practical advice for pastors as they go about the fraught work of settling into a new ministry position. Even the chapter titles — “Thou Shalt Be a Cultural Historian,” “Thou Shalt Spend Thy Blue-Chips-for-Change on Changes that Matter,” “Thou Shalt Not Create Expectations Which Cannot Be Met in the Long Term,” (and seven more) — are gems of functional wisdom. Proverbs for new pastors, if you will.
For an example, take Farris’s seventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Beware of the Chronics,” which felt especially insightful to me. In this chapter Farris warns pastors that the way they deal with various kinds of “chronics” in the congregation — “chronic personal problem havers,” “chronic complainers,” “chronic workaholics,” and “the chronically ill” — will set a powerful tone (good or bad) for their future ministry. (My first and last thought, of course, was “You mean every congregation has those people?”)
If Ten Commandments for Pastors will help new clergy keep their heads above water during their perilous early years in ministry, Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant will help them gradually learn not just to survive, but to thrive.
I first encountered Peterson’s book months before I even started working for the company that published it. Not even two years out of seminary, my husband began facing a series of personal and professional crises in his ministry. A more experienced mentor pastor sent him to find this book, and we’ve been slowly making our way through it together ever since.
Like so many pastors, including my husband, Peterson faced early on in his ministry a “crisis of vocation,” in which he had to decide whether he would choose to be a successful professional church-worker or a faithful pastor. He couldn’t, he discovered, do both. Not really.
With the help of the book of Jonah, the Psalms, the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and stories culled from reflections on his own spiritual formation and pastoral work, he leads readers through this crisis and into a wiser and more profound understanding of pastoral ministry. It’s a paradigm-shift-inducing journey.
Last August, both NPR and the New York Times devoted space to covering the growing evidence that members of the clergy suffer higher rates of depression, chronic health problems, and burnout than the average population. None of the research surprised me — nor, I would guess, did it surprise anyone married to a pastor. Being a pastor is a hard job. It’s a good job, but a hard one.
So, to all the seminary grads prayerfully approaching ordination this summer: I wish God’s richest blessings on your work, and I commend to you the last lines of George Herbert’s poem, “The Collar,” (the opening lines of which I quoted above).
“But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde, / At every word, / Methought I heard one calling, Childe : / And I reply’d, My Lord.”
And to all the spouses, friends, and doting parents of those seminary grads prayerfully approaching ordination this summer: consider slipping one or both of these books onto their bookshelves in honor of the occasion. With Pastor Peterson and Pastor Farris (and perhaps also Pastor Barnes) on hand, they’ll be a little better equipped for that awe-filled moment when they begin to grasp how much they still have to learn.